When you critique other people’s work, it’s hard not to compare what you’re reading to what you would have done. “He should have started with a quote,” you think, shaking your head. Or “Oh God, not the passive voice!”
This attitude will not make you popular with your colleagues. More to the point, it doesn’t serve the project.
If the writer is guilty of poor grammar or word choice, awkward phrasing or other laziness, you need to call him on it. But before you do, think about what’s really bothering you. Is it the way he writes? Or the fact that he doesn’t write like you?
When the writer does make a mistake, your criticism should be constructive. Scrawling “AWK” all over the piece won’t help. Neither will rewriting it–he’ll be insulted and you’ll be angry that you had to spend so much time on someone else’s work. Try to offer concrete suggestions (“rephrase as an active statement,” “eliminate repetition”) and vent your frustration somewhere other than on the page.
I hate the passive voice; it’s sneaky and whiny. Most people use it to slither out of something they feel guilty about, whether it’s missing a deadline (“the newsletter was delayed”) or fathering a child out of wedlock (“the situation was unfortunate”).
I’ve been calling for the death of the passive voice ever since I picked up a blue pencil (we used these quaint tools to edit copy back in the last century, children). But after 20 years on the front lines, today I admit defeat.
The passive clause is essential to corporate writing. Like the heads of the Hydra, every time I lop one off, two come back. Whether justifying ourselves to shareholders or placing the blame on another department, we can’t get by without it.
This sad fact can no longer be denied.
If you work in the digital world, you should know about The Hired Guns, a slick and useful recruiting site with some equally slick and useful blogs. Blog editor John Rambow interviewed me about the perils of workspeak; please check out “Drinking the Kool-Aid” and Other Corporate Clichés to Avoid.
Does anything go out of style more quickly than the way we describe technology? Even oldsters like me know that “information superhighway,” “personal digital assistant” and “long-distance call” are old hat. But here are a few terms I didn’t realize were obsolete:
- Thin client: Linguistically speaking, Oracle’s desk-terminal approach has been replaced by the virtual desktop.
- Weblogging (also microblogging): Now just blogging (and Twitter).
- Intranet: Virtual private network, or VPN. Can also be used to describe an extranet.
- Push technology: This evolved into RSS (for Really Simple Syndication), a term that, I suspect, will be at death’s door in a year or so.
- Application Service Provider (ASP): Anyone for cloud computing?
Recently I said to a colleague, “We need to improve distribution channels for your piece.”
The colleague heard, “She is criticizing the way I distribute my work. In fact, she dislikes my work, and has no respect for the time and effort I put into it.”
Since then, every request to this colleague has been met with a wall of resistance. The question, “Which solution works best for our system?” receives the reply, “Any solution would require change.”
“Which would be most compatible?” I ask. The reply: a cut-and-paste document containing spec information from the websites of the vendors in question.
Even the body language is defensive: crossed arms, tight smile, refusal to meet the eye. Yet when asked, this colleague says, “My first priority is to help the group.”
The language of resistance is ultimately self-defeating. If this colleague feels disrespected, there are appropriate ways to address it. Instead, because his behavior is so unpleasant, the rest of the group tries not to include him in meetings. This fuels his paranoia and makes him even less effective.
Seth Godin recently blogged on the subject “What’s high school for?” His suggestions included adding project management, presentation skills and leadership training to the curriculum.
I love Seth’s blog and learn a lot from his insights, but I’m betting he doesn’t have high-school-aged children. Here’s what I want my kids to learn in high school:
- How to write a paper. I’m not talking about a research thesis. I’d be happy to see a one-page book report that was cleanly written and properly edited.
- Basic organizational skills. The typical teen has 5,000 songs filed and categorized on her iPod. Yet she either forgets to write down her homework assignments, or misplaces the paper she wrote them on.
- How not to phone it in. My kids are pretty smart, which means they can get decent grades on papers they write at 2 a.m. the night before they’re due, based on material taken from Wikipedia. I have been unable to convince them that there is an advantage to actually researching a topic and formulating original conclusions about it.
- How to answer the phone and/or email. If it’s not a text, it doesn’t get their attention, no matter how many times I point out that old fogies like college admissions people and employers still use the phone.
As for the other skills Seth recommends–to tell you the truth, I’d just as soon hold off on turning them into little consultants. But I heartily concur with his suggestion that we give them “An insatiable desire (and the ability) to learn more.” The question is, how?
Ragan has posted my latest rant, on grammar rules that were made to be broken. My favorite: it’s time to stop worshiping at the altar of Strunk & White. A lot of their style rules really suck. There. I said it.
On the subject of rule-breaking, I am also proud to announce my first piece for Salon, a personal essay about my unusual family. It has nothing to do with business writing, but I hope you enjoy it.
Everyone’s seen them: sentences, phrases or whole publications so awful they literally made you squirm. In honor of appalling writing–and the people who make it happen–I’ve created this sure-to-be-coveted annual trophy. Early submissions include:
“Out to the yard, where fantasy awaits.” (Residential real estate listing, presumably for a brothel)
“Our work will give you a piece of mind.” (Masonry company brochure)
Bring on the nominations!
Reader and Renaissance man Bob Parker brought my attention to Alfred Kahn, economist and former head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, who was perhaps best known for a memo he circulated in 1977 containing guidelines for the avoidance of “gobbledygook” in corporate speech. The whole thing is a gem, well worth the five minutes it will take you to read it. Here are a few of my favorite lines:
“If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.”
“Try reading some of the language you use aloud, and ask yourself how your friends would be likely to react.”
On the passive voice: “Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says ‘he was hit by a stone’ than ‘I hit him with a stone.'”
“I have heard it said that style is not substance, but without style what is substance?”
What indeed. The memo garnered Kahn a marriage proposal (he was already married) and newspaper editorials suggesting he be elected president and/or get the Nobel Prize. He died late last year, so perhaps it’s time to nominate him for sainthood.
Ragan.com has given me a bully pulpit once again: Check out 4 rules for using idioms in your writing, including current favorites like “he’s peeing on my leg, but it’s warm and it feels good.”